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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

The 1935 House that Introduced the FHA to Bismarck

Sketch of house

This is a 1935 sketch of 903 North 9th Street, a model home that helped introduce FHA loan programs to Bismarck. The house still exists and looks much like this, with the interior features much the same. From The Bismarck Tribune, March 10, 1935, 6.

It was a real surprise to find out so much about my neighbor’s house while researching the Federal Relief Programs started by the Roosevelt Administration. This house still embodies many modern features for energy efficiency and convenience that inspired and thrilled our grandparents. It was built as part of a nation-wide competition to promulgate the new Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and showcase the latest in modern home comforts.

In the early 1930s Bismarck and the rest of the country was in the depth of the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had rolled out numerous federal agencies designed to get wageworkers re-employed. One of the industries hardest hit was construction. In 1930 Bismarck had 57 new home starts, but in 1934 there were only seven.1 Most local construction workers were under or unemployed.

These grim conditions were everywhere, so one of the best-known federal agencies specifically organized to get construction revitalized was the FHA, founded in 1934. The Better Housing Program, under the FHA, encouraged homeowners to improve their house’s function and resale value through small but complex projects that would require cabinetry or the hiring of an electrician, plumber, or other trade specialist. It also funded new homes and promoted major repairs to improve neglected housing stock through low-interest loans.2 In North Dakota, homeowners spent $1,250,000 in 1934 – 1935 on home improvements, which facilitated getting tradespeople back to work.3

The Better Housing Program publicized a competition for a new modern home to be drawn by an architect and completed by a local builder in each city. Nationally 1,500 designs were submitted. Bismarck’s 1935 home is still standing today at 903 North 9th Street. It was designed by architect H. M. Leonard and built by Robert G. Aune.

Here are some of the conveniences packaged in this Picturesque-style home. The basement floor has an insulating concrete type (new in the 1930s), according to the architect, and balsam wool batt insulation in the attic.4 The living room is in rustic design with a beamed ceiling, oak flooring on the first floor, and birch trimmings. It contains a fireplace of native rock. Other lovely characteristics of the first floor are its rustic iron stairway to the second floor, a telephone niche, and a built-in buffet.5

The builder Robert Aune was a multi-talented cabinet-maker who later headed the FHA’s office for Bismarck. In the mid-1930s there was a serious housing crunch in Bismarck fueled mostly by refugees from dust bowl conditions in the surrounding area and natural population increase.6 The FHA’s support and pent-up demand for housing led him to build his model home on the corner and the house next to it at 905 North 9th Street. He also specialized in stonework as well as being a general contractor. I’m looking for other examples of houses and buildings that he built. If you know of any, please contact me at squinnell@nd.gov!

A few of the many FHA-related headlines generated in the mid-1930s (Bismarck Tribune). Housing Situation Acute Here; Heavy Construction Seen. Insulation will be of Great Interest, Architect Believes. FHA Drive Produces Big Results in ND. Home Owners, Businessmen Hold Key to Success of Modernization Drive. Completed Plans for Ultra-Modern House Announced.


1 Bismarck Assessing Division, Construction Analysis, 1930 – 1950, October 5, 2005, compiled from assessors records.
2https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSce7l0SlkI Better Housing News Flashes by Pathé Films, 1934.
3The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, North Dakota), Tue, Apr 30, 1935, 3.
4The Bismarck Tribune Jul 8, 1935, 7. http://www.ncwhomeinspections.com/Balsam+Wool+Insulation
5The Bismarck Tribune June 10, 1935 page 6.
6 Bismarck Census Figures from: http://www.bismarcknd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/4382

Collecting the Everyday: The Most Important Thing You Probably Don’t Know We Do

When you think of a museum collection, what types of artifacts do you think of? Maybe dinosaur bones, antique cars, or a World War II uniform? Something old, maybe even ancient. While collecting from the past is an essential part of the Museum Division’s function, what is just as important is collecting from the present.

Most people don’t know that we actively collect from today’s world, and the typical reaction when they find out is, “Why would you want that?” To many, modern items often seem too insignificant to belong in a museum. However, the purpose of the Museum Division’s collection is to preserve a three-dimensional historical record of life in North Dakota. What do these everyday items say about our values, our technology, and our society? What common stories are captured and preserved from our lives? What will they tell researchers about us in 100 years? 1,000? After all, what is now old and distinctive was once a part of everyday life.

Take a look at five artifacts that we have collected from our contemporary world. Do you have anything from your life that can add to North Dakota’s story?

1. Car Seat (2016.43.1)

Cow pattern car seat

Used by the donor for nine months of 2015, the car seat was a hand-me-down from a friend whose son had grown out of it. Some distinctive things about the artifact include an expiration date, which is a relatively new safety feature. We also know that the print on the seat cover is called Cow-Moo-Flage, which amuses me to no end. Would we have captured those stories had we collected the item 100 years from now? We likely would not have, and it adds a human dimension to the artifact. The advances in technology also say something to me about how much we, as a society, value our kids!

2. Apple iBook G3 Laptop (2016.22.1)

Apple iBook G3 laptop in orange and white

Like many of our more recent artifacts, the laptop came from our State Historical Society staff. It was purchased through a grant in 1999 for $1,599 (nearly $2,500 in 2018 dollars) so the agency could build a website to “take advantage of the public’s growing use of the internet.” Sporting 64 MB of ram and a 6 GB hard drive, its specifications make it practically unusable by today’s standards. It not only demonstrates the advances computers continue to make, but with its distinctive exterior, shows late 1990s fashion. It also documents efforts to adapt to a major shift in society: the proliferation and use of the Internet.

3. Cereal Box (1985.46.4)

Cheerios cereal box

We have a large collection of food containers. It’s something that typically gets thrown out or recycled, so why would a museum want it? How much of our time and money do we spend either preparing or purchasing food? And do you really understand a culture if you don’t understand how and what they eat? This cereal was purchased for the donor’s young children in 1985. How many of us as kids spent a Saturday morning eating a bowl of cereal while watching cartoons? It’s a common childhood story that is captured when we preserve this artifact.

4. Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone (2016.41.1)

Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone

How can you talk about 21st century life without acknowledging the monumental shift brought about by smartphones? We have mobile phones in the collection running as far back as a 1980s car phone. In addition to the stories collected with each donation, each reflects changing technologies and the transition to the all-purpose devices we carry around today.

5. Selfie Stick (number not yet assigned)

Selfie stick

Part of the rise of smartphones is all the accessories that come along with them. Though selfie sticks have been around in one form or another for decades, they became a popular smartphone accessory within the last few years.
Do you have something from your life that would add to North Dakota’s story? Send in a potential donation questionnaire on our website.